Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz was the first game in the franchise released for the Wii, and it did a couple things well: It showed how the unique motion controls of the system could be put to good use and breathed new life into the franchise by adding a jump button, as well as a ton of minigames. The newest Monkey Ball, Step & Roll, does another two things well. First, it shows that the novelty of playing a Monkey Ball game with the balance board wears thin quickly. Second, it shows that removing features and mechanics that worked well in the previous installment is a bad idea. Though it retains some of the series' appeal, there is little reason to roll around the world of Step & Roll.
The core mechanics behind Super Monkey Ball are still here. You've got to get a monkey in a ball to the goal within a time limit by tilting the stage and managing the monkey's momentum. There are 70 levels to play through, divided across several themed worlds. Like the last game on the Wii, you control the tilt of the stage by tilting your Wii Remote. Unlike the last game, the jumping mechanic has been removed, and in its place is balance-board support, as well as a new cooperative mode. Minigames make a return, though there are less than half as many of them as in the previous game.
There are new ways to play the single-player mode, but that doesn't make them fun. Gone are the challenging jump puzzles and final-stage boss fights. Instead, each world is split into 10 levels, two of which are bonus rounds. Upon completing every 10th level, you're forced to watch the credits--not a bad thing at first, but eight times is more than enough. The levels seem to go with a one-size-fits-all design, which works about as well as a one-size-fits-all tuxedo on prom night. You'll play the same levels with the remote or balance board as you would in co-op mode, and the only difference is the number of arbitrary obstacles. Because playing with the balance board is difficult, you'll have fewer obstacles in your way. Co-op mode, on the other hand, loads the screen with obstacles for the second player to blast out of the way. It's a fun idea, but it doesn't mesh well with the Monkey Ball setup. Because you're twisting and turning the scenery--not the ball--to move your monkey through each level, getting a bead on the targets impeding your partner's progress can be tough. The remote-only mode offers a decent middle-of-the-road challenge, but it's hard to ignore the feeling that some levels could be more (or less) challenging if they weren't designed with every control scheme in mind.
The motion controls of the Wii seem like a perfect fit for Monkey Ball, and at times, they work well. Narrowly avoiding an endless pit with a few deft flicks of your wrist is exhilarating and rewarding. Unfortunately, when you slow things down to make precise moves, the controls and camera struggle to hold things together. Tilting the remote back will turn your monkey ball around, and as the camera spins to reflect the change in direction, the controls often lag behind, which leads to a disorienting wobble. Sometimes you'll adjust to the shift in orientation just in time for the camera to swing back around and mess things up again. Getting caught in this little dance can be intensely frustrating, especially with the clock ticking in the background. If that sounds aggravating with a remote, then you'll hate the balance-board controls. There are few things that can make you feel more like an idiot than standing in your living room trying to wiggle a monkey out of a corner with full-body gyrations.
The 21 minigames (down from 50 in the last game) also make use of multiple control schemes. The quality of these games is mediocre at best, and few are worth playing more than once or twice. Unresponsive controls turn some minigames--the pinball or ladder-climbing games, for example--into games of chance. You can mix control schemes on a few of the minigames, with some players on remotes and another on a balance board. If you're into unfair advantages, sticking someone with the balance board is a great way to guarantee him or her last place in some games.
The one improvement this Monkey Ball makes over the last comes in the presentation. The vibrant, colorful visuals and smooth, exaggerated animation build on the solid visual makeover from the previous installment. Watching a monkey comically flip around in a speeding ball is almost enough to take your mind off of the gameplay annoyances--almost. The upbeat and catchy music layers with each stage you complete, resulting in a rich song full of recognizable melodies at the end of each world.
If you were to list the features of Step & Roll next to those of the previous game, you'd think that this game came first. Step & Roll has fewer levels, fewer minigames, no jump button, and no boss fights. It's an odd step backward for a series that was gaining momentum on a new platform. Despite being a big selling point, playing with the balance board isn't as fun or intuitive as playing with the remote. And if you're going to play using the remote alone, you might as well seek out the last game in the bargain bin or wait for this one to roll its way there.